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Slow Thinking: Desolation downtown or destination downtown

Posted: Thursday, Feb 21st, 2013

Just about every Atascadero resident wants an attractive, vibrant downtown. Even the usual contrarians and curmudgeons can’t deny that having options for dining, shopping and socializing in our downtown area would enhance our quality of life. It would also bring in more revenues from sales and transient occupancy taxes and enhance Atascadero’s image.

Though blessed with beautiful residential areas, Atascadero’s business district does not measure up. It is like having a house with beautiful bedrooms, but an uncomfortable and uninviting living room. As most congregating is done in the living room, and visitors rarely get beyond there — it is the place where impressions are made. For a city, the business district is the living room. That phenomenon currently works against Atascadero, as residents have no attractive place to congregate and our city’s image is one of dollar stores and drive-thrus dominating a disorderly array of strip malls strung out over some seven miles along El Camino Real.

The good news is that improvement has been progressing, despite an uncooperative economy. The completion of stage one of Colony Square, and especially Galaxy Theatres’ arrival, has given the downtown a huge infusion. Now there is something to do in downtown Atascadero every day of the year. Also, the opening of Molly Pitcher has brought dozens of young people into downtown Atascadero on a nightly basis. Colby Jack’s revival of the Carlton Hotel’s restaurant and new shops, wine tasting and art venues have also breathed more life into the downtown.

Now we must get to the next level. The reopening of a gloriously restored rotunda building and the relocation of the library into bigger, better space downtown, will add further impetus to the drive toward a destination downtown. Still, we will be a little short of the critical mass of in-place development and retail traffic that entices private developers to undertake substantial projects.

So we need to be resourceful and creative to bolster development in our downtown. In that regard, we can start by recognizing the opportunity presented by the proposed annexation of Eagle Ranch to the city of Atascadero.

The city is currently prodding the proponents of the Eagle Ranch project to develop 15-plus acres of “highway commercial” at the Santa Barbara Road interchange, as a way to generate tax revenues to partially offset the costs of annexation.

It is short-sighted, however, to imagine that the tax revenues from such a development would compensate for the long-term costs the community will suffer as a result of creating yet another retail node at the city’s southern extreme. The last thing that Atascadero’s sprawling, linear business district needs is further elongation; and the last thing our nascent downtown needs is competition from a new retail center at the south end of town.

Rather than proposing to saddle our city with yet another freeway interchange node, let’s ask the Eagle Ranch developers to develop a project in the downtown comparable to the 200-room hotel the city has been encouraging them to build at the Santa Barbara interchange. Not only would that better serve the community’s interests, but Eagle Ranch’s own prospects for establishing an upscale residential community and resort would be enhanced by the presence of a destination downtown right in Atascadero.

Obtaining a strategic downtown development as a by-product of the Eagle Ranch annexation is one example of the kind of resourcefulness that is needed to bring Atascadero a destination downtown. Identifying and utilizing every opportunity to boost downtown development needs to be prioritized, especially during this pivotal period when the downtown is emerging, the economy is improving and a window of opportunity is opening. It is a long way from desolation downtown to a destination downtown, but the distance can be covered if the city stays focused on recruiting quality development into the downtown every chance it gets. We can recharge that recruitment effort by getting a major development project in the downtown area in conjunction with annexing Eagle Ranch.

Len Colamarino has resided in Atascadero since January 2005, after having practiced international business law in New York for almost 30 years. He ran for Atascadero City Council in 2008 and has served on the Atascadero Planning Commission since February 2009.

For the complete article see the 02-22-2013 issue.

Click here to purchase an electronic version of the 02-22-2013 paper.

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